Movie Review ~ Nightmare Alley (2021)

The Facts:  

Synopsis: An ambitious carny with a talent for manipulating people with a few well-chosen words hooks up with a female psychiatrist who is even more dangerous than he is. 

Stars: Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Toni Collette, Willem Dafoe, Richard Jenkins, Rooney Mara, Ron Perlman, Mary Steenburgen, David Strathairn, Holt McCallany 

Director: Guillermo del Toro 

Rated: R 

Running Length: 150 minutes 

TMMM Score: (8.5/10) 

Review:  ‘Tis the season for directors that just ‘get’ movies to be coming back to theaters with a vengeance.  Filmmakers that simply understand the language of cinema and the power of the medium have had some time to either tweak their projects that were delayed due to the COVID-19 lockdown or have been continuing to work through the pandemic to finish their anticipated flicks on schedule.  And it’s so good to have them back because as much as we like to believe that moviemaking is more and more like a collaborative process, when all is said and done the buck stops with the director because it’s their vision that dictates what the tone of the film is going to be.  That’s why you can spot a Steven Spielberg (West Side Story) movie from a mile away or recognize the latest from Paul Thomas Anderson (Licorice Pizza) as it draws near, not to mention waffling around an Adam McKay satire (Don’t Look Up) and deciding if it’s for you or not.

Another director that has become instantly recognizable is Guillermo del Toro and maybe more than anyone I’ve already mentioned the Oscar-winner for The Shape of Water has a signature style that couldn’t possibly be anything else but him.  The early trailers for Nightmare Alley were classic del Toro, with the noir-ish period setting that we know was set in the past but how far in the past was anyone’s guess, well, if you hadn’t already read the 1946 novel by William Lindsay Gresham that inspired it.  Not just a well-respected filmmaker but a celebrated film fan as well, del Toro engineered those trailers and even the marketing of Nightmare Alley to be as mysterious as can be, keeping hidden the true plot of the film and it’s worked out wonderfully in creating interest to see just what is down this Alley of del Toro’s creation.

While you won’t get any spoilers out of me, I will say that like many of the foreboding places that frightened us when we were young, Nightmare Alley is a movie that gets less intriguing as more light leaks onto the shadowy plot, but for a time it does it’s work considerably well.  It also gives some already strong actors even more rich moments to add to their lifetime achievement reels.  If only the plot could be as finely etched as the performances that are floating through the piece, then we might have had something as grand as del Toro wanted to give us. 

Joining a traveling circus to escape a past we learn in doled out fragments, Stanton “Stan” Carlisle (Bradley Cooper, A Star is Born) remains a silent mystery for most of the first hour of Nightmare Alley.  Observing the carnies and hucksters who entice onlookers into the cheap freak show, he eventually moves onto working with Pete (David Strathairn, Nomadland) and Zeena (Toni Collette, Muriel’s Wedding) on their clairvoyant act.  Learning the secrets of their success becomes an opportunity for Stan and before you know it, events occur which send Stan out into a world removed from the carnival folk where he puts the “powers” he has gained to use as a way of reinventing his life.

Years later, he’s working with fellow former performer and girlfriend Molly (Roony Mara, Side Effects) in a sophisticated act for high-paying customers when an elegant but hard-edged woman (Cate Blanchett, Where’d You Go, Bernadette) tries to trip him up and expose him as a fraud.  How this woman plays into Stan’s life and what is means for his future is where the real story of Nightmare Alley begins…and where this part of the review has to end because I wouldn’t dare reveal the twists which begin to entangle with deadly results anyone that gets too close to Stan.

An overly hesitant first act/hour is mere set-up for Blanchett to swoop into del Toro’s grandly staged Nightmare Alley and remind us all how much she loves her job. In a cast of VPs, she’s ready for noir, elevating each scene to its chilling maximum potential.  The centerpiece scene between Blanchett and Cooper is a considerable crown jewel of filmmaking for 2021 and is rightfully being shown ad nauseum in clips for the film and in campaigns for both actors for awards consideration.  I don’t know if the movie will make it across that line but if anyone has the potential to get there, it’s Blanchett for her gorgeously mysterious and dangerous efforts here.

As expected, del Toro provides visuals that are impressive without being needlessly flashy. Cinematographer Dan Laustsen, The Possession, a long-time collaborator with del Toro, clearly speaks the director’s language and their work in tandem gives the film its flawless period look, along with Tamara Deverell’s beautiful production design. Though overly episodic at times and more simplistically predictable than I would have anticipated, it’s also stunningly rendered by its creative team. Expect to leave Nightmare Alley wishing to have had just one more scene for a few characters left dangling. The 150 never-boring minutes you spend in your seat with Cooper and company does fly by, though.

Movie Review ~ The Humans

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Erik Blake has gathered three generations of his Pennsylvania family to celebrate Thanksgiving at his daughter’s apartment in lower Manhattan. As darkness falls outside and eerie things start to go bump in the night, the group’s deepest fears are laid bare.

Stars: Richard Jenkins, Jayne Houdyshell, Steven Yeun, Beanie Feldstein, Amy Schumer, June Squibb

Director: Stephen Karam

Rated: R

Running Length: 106 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  I admit it, I admit it.  When I saw the national touring cast of The Humans perform this tiny intimate (read: quiet) show at our cavernous local theater I fell completely asleep before the one act play was half over.  It’s not my proudest moment but writer Stephen Karam’s dialogue just lulled me to sleep, and I would have slept a lot longer if the staging hadn’t included a rather alarming sound which jolted me up.  Widely acclaimed off-Broadway before moving to the Great White Way, The Humans took Broadway by storm and snatched up several key Tony Awards before it closed and then went on tour.  I know the tour struggled for business and it’s not hard to see why.  Karam’s play is meant to be seen in an intimate setting where you don’t have to lean quite so far in to hear what each person is saying.

Karam adapts and directs his play (a Pulitzer Prize finalist) in A24’s new film The Humans and at the outset I was hesitant about going back to it seeing that the last time I got involved with the family drama contained within I had a nice nap while doing so.  The first twenty minutes didn’t do anything to assuage my original thoughts. Karam’s tendency to favor natural sound and filming the actors so far back that you can’t read their lips if you can’t hear them begins as alienating but eventually transitions into something your brain adjusts to.  Once it does, it’s like a key has opened up a window and welcomed you into Karam’s Thanksgiving-set story revolving around one family and their surprisingly revealing gathering.

The two-level Chinatown apartment of Brigid (Beanie Feldstein, Booksmart) and her boyfriend Richard (Steven Yeun, Minari) is where the Blake family gathers to celebrate the holiday, though the sparsely furnished and barely lit dwelling isn’t exactly inviting.  While the couple’s furniture has yet to arrive thanks to a delay with their moving truck, they’ve done their best to make Brigid’s parents, sister, and grandmother feel welcome with what little comforts they do have.  Still, there’s a tension that hangs in the air at the outset and it’s more than the usual family dynamics which often come to a head during the festive months of the year. 

Maybe it’s because grandmother Momo’s (June Squibb, Palm Springs) dementia has continued to advance, requiring Brigid’s mom Deirdre (Jayne Houdyshell, Little Women) to devote more of her time to the care of her mother-in-law.  Perhaps it’s Aimee (Amy Schumer, Trainwreck) and her recent breakup or persistent health issues.  Erik’s (Richard Jenkins, The Shape of Water) aloofness to much of the clear strife going on in front of him is another issue that requires resolution and it’s not hard to read between the lines in Karam’s script that Erik is the character with the most broken pieces to fix and is being held together by the thinnest of protective layers.  When and how these dysfunctions flare up arrive in unexpected ways with solutions that don’t necessarily leave audiences with the answers they are used to getting.

It’s one of the strong selling points of The Humans that it stays so true to its stage counterpart…and a reason why it may be a tough nut to crack for many viewers.  It’s so stage-bound that you do feel as if you’re watching a filmed version of a live play at times, a feeling that isn’t helped by one (masterfully constructed) shot which pulls back to show the multi-level set as if we were in the balcony of a theater watching the show. 

Directorially, Karam isn’t quite a strong as the script he provided so it’s a good thing he has cast the film so exceedingly well.  Jenkins, Squibb, and Yeun are wonderful in their roles and Feldstein continues to show a talent for portraying complicated characters that aren’t afraid to be abrasive.  The vulnerability in Schumer’s solid performance will surprise a good many of her naysayers but it’s Houdyshell’s show, and you can easily see why she won a Tony for the same role on Broadway.  Karam likes long takes and that’s perfect for several of Houdyshell’s scenes that require a range of emotions to play out in real time.  While Deirdre isn’t always a pleasant person to be around, I left the film wanting to know far more about her than any other character and that’s a sure sign Houdyshell has done her job on an exemplary level.

I think The Humans is a tad too reserved to break into the noisier races this year and that’s unfortunate because Houdyshell should absolutely get noticed for her work, as should production designer David Gropman (Life of Pi) and cinematographer Lol Crawley (Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom) for their focused efforts on making Karam’s world come to life so seamlessly from stage to screen.  It takes a while to get its engines up to speed but when it does there are some fascinating characters created, with issues ready to be digested along with your own Thanksgiving meal.

Movie Review ~ Kajillionaire


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A woman’s life is turned upside down when her criminal parents invite an outsider to join them on a major heist they’re planning.

Stars: Evan Rachel Wood, Gina Rodriguez, Richard Jenkins, Debra Winger, Patricia Belcher, Diana Maria Riva, Kim Estes, Da’vine Joy Randolph, Rachel Redleaf

Director: Miranda July

Rated: R

Running Length: 106 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  It’s hard to imagine it now, but back in March I was getting to the point where I was considering limiting my screenings to no more than two a week in theaters, if that.  The process of getting home from work and having no time to catch my breath before heading out to a screening or finding a way to fit one in during the daytime was tough stuff, especially when you consider there was a full-time job and relationship that I had to prioritize.  Then there were the audiences which, as anyone that’s been to a movie in the last two years can attest, have been growing into a headstrong pack of rogue-texting, seat-kicking, popcorn-chomping, late-arriving, no-shame-about-it-talkers that proceed to treat their fellow movie-goers as witnesses to their showcase of bad behavior.  I know, I know…this is all “woe is me” and the kind of “spoiled critic”-type complaining I normally gag at, but my candle burning at both ends was about to melt away completely and my patience level was wearing thin.

Then this pandemic hit and I suddenly found myself in an audience of one (or two if I wasn’t being impossible that day) with only myself to complain about. And I discovered something interesting.  If there’s one thing I’ve really missed these past seven months watching films at home it’s…audiences.  Not just heading to the theater and milling about shoulder to shoulder in the lobby wondering what everyone else is seeing or waiting in line to get into your auditorium but the communal nature of everyone having a shared experience of discovery together.  Laughs are great at comedies, shrieks are fun at horror, and it’s secretly fun to spot alpha males walking out of a “guys cry too” film with their eyes red and watery.  For me, though, my favorite moments are when an audience catches on to something at the same time a character onscreen does and can’t help but gasp or let their jaws hinge open.

There’s two of these very surprises in director Miranda July’s new film Kajillionaire and I couldn’t help but get a small pang of sadness when I realized how much fun it would have been to be in a packed crowd to see it for the first time.  Now, I wouldn’t dream of spoiling what these little moments of movie magic are, what kind of emotion they’re meant to elicit, or when they occur, but the first is easy to pick-up on while the second might be something that will sneak up on you after the movie has finished.  Known for her more avant-garde work in independent film in the past, July continues her recent streak of staying in a more commercial lane with Kajillionaire.  Thanks to emotionally resonant work from her star and a trio of fine supporting performances, July may have made her most accessible film yet…though in an ironic twist it’s primarily about the inaccessibility of emotions between a daughter and her parents.

A family of con-artists make their way through Los Angeles barely scraping by with their small time swindles and quick schemes.  Like a modern day version of the grasping couple the Thénardiers from Les Misérables, Robert (Richard Jenkins, The Shape of Water) and Theresa (Debra Winger, Terms of Endearment) aren’t above stealing from the dying to get ahead or lying their way out of any situation if it means they might eventually turn a profit.  Yet we learn early on they’re also impulsive in their decisions and reckless spenders when they do find funds, which begins to alienate their daughter Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood, Frozen II) who learns on her own the value of money and the emotions that come with it.  How Old Dolio got her name is another mystery the film holds onto until late in the game and when we learn its origin it manages to be both terrifically funny and tragically sad at the same time, another of July’s gifts in storytelling.

When Old Dolio cooks up a plan to help pay the back rent they owe through a con involving an airline luggage insurance claim, her parents somehow manage to bring Melanie (Gina Rodriguez, Annihilation), into the fold.  Sensing immediate competition from the more glamorous girl, Old Dolio begins to distance herself from her family, even after Melanie comes up with her own plans to use the trio to advance a money-making hustle of her own.  Thankfully, July lets things get as messy as possible over the ensuing hour and supplies her cast with great material in which to explore the relationships between parents and their children as well as young women finding their own inner strength even without a role model/strong parental figure to guide them.

Wood completely disappears into her role, pitching her voice to a dull low monotone with a hint of California surfer thrown in for good measure.  It’s not a “dumb” voice but one that wasn’t ever exposed to any emotional levels that would signal a change in dynamics she could learn from and that’s not her fault.  Clearly, Robert and Theresa never took the time to parent their child, only using her as we see them using her now…as part of their con in one way or another.  You almost wonder at some points if she’s even their real daughter or if her birth was planned as part of another plot that paid out previously.  Though strong as ever, I feel like I’ve seen Jenkins play this kind of aloof father figure before, his complete disregard for the feelings of others stings like a slap in the face even to us the viewer.   With each passing film, I’m more and more impressed with the parts that Rodriguez takes on, they never seem to be quite the same person and she’s obviously pushing against any kind of bubble Hollywood is trying to stick her under.  A true legend when it comes to screen presence and talent, Winger is always (always) a welcome sight and her brittle character is fairly fascinating; watching her turn on a dime from uninterested to fully committed for the sake of the swindle is spooky…you’ll want to dissect it later.

Careening a bit too much with tonal issues that start to distract more than help audiences fully sync up with Old Dolio and her lot, July eventually spins Kajillionaire out of control but regains some semblance of order for a rewarding finale that I had no idea what to expect from.  These are the kind of movies where you don’t know the ending at the beginning and that’s an exciting film to be able to step up to the line for.  I’d have liked to have trusted the film a bit more in the second half when it wanted to be more serious as it shifted into a different gear, but by that time it had trained you to be on the lookout for dishonesty so much that it was almost impossible to let your guard down. Add to that characters that have made it their mission to deceive and you never know if you’re hearing the full truth, a version of the truth we want to hear, or an outright lie.  It makes for an interesting movie, which Kajillionaire certainly is, but an uneasy view.

Movie Review ~ The Shape of Water


The Facts
:

Synopsis: In a 1960s research facility, a mute janitor forms a relationship with an aquatic creature.

Stars: Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Doug Jones, Michael Stuhlbarg, Octavia Spencer

Director: Guillermo del Toro

Rated: R

Running Length: 125 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: First impressions are everything and the underwater opening shot of The Shape of Water got in good with me.  Over the credits, director Guillermo del Toro navigates us through hallways submerged in water as if hazily coming out of a dream before revealing that’s exactly what’s happening.  It’s a beautifully artsy way to introduce his adult fairy tale and it sets a tone that’s well-maintained throughout.  This is an artisan that knows his way around strong visuals but sometimes struggles with a narrative to match those impressive sights.  Over-indulging with Pacific Rim but bouncing back nicely with the criminally underrated Crimson Peak, del Toro reaches new heights (or depths?) with The Shape of Water.

Living above a movie theater and working nights as a janitor at a government laboratory in 1960s Baltimore, Elisa (Sally Hawkins, Blue Jasmine) has been mute since an injury as an infant left her unable to speak.  It’s a quiet life ruled by routine, whether it be her standard breakfast or her “personal” time she makes sure to take every day.  Her job is mundane but she has a friendly co-worker in Zelda (Octavia Spencer, Fruitvale Station) and Giles, a kindly closeted neighbor to keep her company.

The lives of all three are altered significantly by the arrival of a secret experiment into the research facility.  A living, breathing sea-monster has been captured in South America and has been brought to the test center to be studied, observed, dissected.  Under the watchful eye of the evil Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon, Midnight Special) and the scholarly interest of Dr. Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg, Trumbo), the creature is kept chained in a tank and routinely tortured by his captor.

While cleaning the laboratory one night, Elisa connects with the creature and sees kindness in him where others see fear.  Over the next days they find a common language that leads to deeper understanding and maybe…love.  Set during the height of the Cold War with the threat of Russian spies everywhere, Strickland takes no chances in protecting his find at all costs, so when Elisa hatches an escape plan for the creature and brings Zelda and Giles (Richard Jenkins, White House Down) along as her co-conspirators, they face an obsessive hunter out for blood.

As is typical of a del Toro picture, the period details are precise down to the backsplash tiles in Elisa’s apartment.  An ardent fan of monster movies from Universal Studios, del Toro has intelligently put together this picture as a loving homage to his youth while relaying a very present message of acceptance at the same time.  The script, co-written by del Toro and Vanessa Taylor (Hope Springs), is filled with main characters that would be considered outsiders, or “other”, yet their position in the plot isn’t there to exploit what makes them different.  There’s even a sweet scene where fantasy and reality collide when Elisa imagines herself in a big budget Hollywood musical, featuring the creature as her dance partner.  It’s these bits of whimsy that parallel nicely with the darker turns the film takes in its final half hour.

Hawkins has next to no dialogue but conveys so much in her expressive face.  It’s difficult stuff to invite an audience so far inward but Hawkins has the goods to captivate us throughout.  While Spencer has played (and will continue to play) this type of whip-smart tough cookie roles before, there’s an added layer of angst in her personal life that ups the ante for her.  Jenkins continues to be a value add to any project he’s involved with, his gay illustrator longs for any kind of connection and his personal and professional rejections are heartbreaking to watch.  If all goes to plan, Stuhlbarg will be in three movies nominated for Best Picture this year (Call Me by Your Name and The Post being the others) and as a man harboring dangerous secrets he’s resplendent as always.  No one plays a nasty villain quite like Michael Shannon and while I’d long for a chance to see him play a Giles-like role someday, he’s a nice nemesis for Hawkins and company.

There’s going to be those that find the romantic relationship that develops between Elisa and the creature (marvelously played by Doug Jones, Hocus Pocus) to be troubling.  On the way out of the screening I heard one audience member remark they weren’t aware the movie was about bestiality and honestly, to reduce the movie to that is missing the mark entirely, especially when you take into account the open-for-further discussion ending.  I found the relationships between all of the characters incredibly moving and authentic, especially the dandy scene with Elisa pleading with Giles to help her save the creature.  If they know what’s happening is wrong and do nothing to help him, what makes them any better that Strickland and others who want to destroy something that is different?  It’s a lesson our country needs to hear right now and del Toro knows it.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Shape of Water

Synopsis: An other-worldly fairy tale, set against the backdrop of Cold War era America circa 1963.

Release Date:  December 8, 2017

Thoughts: This just shows you how much I’ve been paying attention.  I mean, I had no idea that The Shape of Water was even a thing much less that Guillermo del Toro (Pacific Rim) was behind the whole affair.  That being said, now that I’m aware of it I’m looking forward to it.  As usual, del Toro’s stories feel like dark fairy tales that push back at pre-conceived notions of darkness and light.  So as fans of the auteur we know it will be different and we know it will look great…but will audiences take a chance on a hard-to-pin-down flick like this?  I know I will, but del Toro’s track record has been spotty with attracting a crowd…which is too bad because he’s one of the very best filmmakers working today.  Starring Sally Hawkins (Blue Jasmine), Octavia Spencer (Fruitvale Station), Michael Shannon (Midnight Special), and Michael Stuhlbarg (Doctor Strange), The Shape of Water surfaces just in time for the holidays.

Movie Review ~ The Company You Keep

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A former Weather Underground activist goes on the run from a journalist who has discovered his identity.

Stars: Shia LaBeouf, Robert Redford, Julie Christie, Richard Jenkins, Susan Sarandon, Stephen Root, Sam Elliott, Brendan Gleeson, Terrence Howard, Anna Kendrick, Jackie Evancho, Stanley Tucci, Brit Marling, Nick Nolte

Director: Robert Redford

Rated: R

Running Length: 121 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: The first of two movies that Robert Redford starred in in 2013 was this curious little project that Redford also sat comfortably in the director seat for.  Though the film came and went with very little fanfare, I’d expect some collateral buzz to be drummed up for it when Redford is (hopefully) nominated for an Oscar for his career-high work in All is Lost.

Redford has seen more action as a director lately and he seems to be enjoying this part of his career which appears to be having a slow moving but surefooted renaissance.  It’s known that Redford is picky about the material he’ll take on as an actor and perhaps more so with his directing work which makes The Company You Keep all the more puzzling because it’s one of those half-there efforts that no one seems particularly invested in.

Scanning the cast list I get the notion that Redford peppered his film with actors he’s long wanted to work with and vice versa.  Why else would some big name stars drop in for what amounts to glorified cameos in an independent picture?  I kept thinking that actors like Richard Jenkins (White House Down, Jack Reacher) were just stopping by for lunch in Sundance when Redford asked if they could film a quick scene before dessert was served.

When Redford’s activist past is exposed by an opportunistic journalist (Shia LaBeouf, Lawless), he goes on the run and works his way through people from his younger days he’s long forgotten and who would just as soon forget about him.  Even with their brief screen time Oscar winners Susan Sarandon (Jeff, Who Lives at Home, Robot & Frank) and Julie Christie are effective as two fellow radicals that re-enter Redford’s present in two very different ways.  And keep your eyes out for Brit Marling (The East), Stanley Tucci (Jack the Giant Slayer), Nick Nolte (Cape Fear, I Love Trouble), and Terrence Howard (Prisoners) in the aforementioned brief supporting turns.

An overlong film, The Company You Keep winds up feeling like the guest that won’t take the hint to go thanks to several false endings.  While it’s diligently made like most Redford films are, there’s an evident emptiness at the core that doesn’t give the film any lasting weight past the final credits — that’s a shame when you consider the might of the stars Redford has assembled.

I should add it also doesn’t help that Redford has cast LaBeouf who continues to be one of the more overrated yet increasingly disliked actors in Hollywood.  Known for badmouthing his costars and film projects, LaBeouf had an overdue denouement at the end of 2013 when it came out that one of his short films was plagiarized from preexisting work.  It’s hard to take him seriously as a flawed film persona because LaBeouf’s personal persona is so much worse.

That casting aside, there’s admittedly a level of sophisticated maturity that should prove interesting to the more astute viewer.  I absolutely suggest you see Redford’s solemn work in All is Lost before taking this one on (he’ll also appear in Captain America: The Winter Soldier) but if you’re a Redford devotee or a fan of the political dramas/thrillers of the late 70’s you may find something worth your time here.

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Movie Review ~ White House Down

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The Facts:

Synopsis: While on a tour of the White House with his young daughter, a Capitol policeman springs into action to save his child and protect the president from a heavily armed group of paramilitary invaders.

Stars: Channing Tatum, Jamie Foxx, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jason Clarke, Richard Jenkins, James Woods

Director: Roland Emmerich

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 131 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: Hollywood’s quirky concept of rival studios producing dueling pictures with the same subject matter has been around for quite some time. There’s the battle of the lava flick with 1997’s Volcano and Dante’s Peak, dueling doomsday comet movies with 1998’s Armageddon and Deep Impact, and most recently two different takes on a fairy princess legend with 2012’s Mirror, Mirror and Snow White and The Huntsman.

One would think that being the first to the theater would signify a clear winner but it’s almost always the case that the second film edges out the competition.  That general rule is true again in 2013 which has provided your local cinema with two movies centered around the hostile takeover of 1600 Penn Avenue…better known as The White House.

March’s Olympus Has Fallen was a gratuitously violent and shabbily made film, feeling like it was shot in the same two hallways and offices with the furniture simply re-organized to suggest a new location.  It also boasted a forgettable villain and supporting performances that ranged from serviceable to hysterically awful (I’m looking at you Melissa Leo).  It felt like an extended version of the television series 24 without any of the surprise that that show seemed to have in spades.

So I was modestly hopeful that White House Down would be a better film…but as more television spots were released and a final too-long trailer was plopped before every summer movie thus far, I started wondering if I’d even make an effort to see the film at all.  It didn’t help that there’s something about the subject matter that doesn’t sit quite right with me – maybe it’s because I find The White House to be a true symbol of the United States of America and I’ve not taken any pleasure in seeing it destroyed in films over the years.

Well, I wound up seeing White House Down opening weekend and my first thought was that the movie was better than it had any right to be.    What you have here is a true blue crowd pleaser that wisely avoids the missteps of Olympus Has Fallen by keeping things moving at such a rapid pace that you barely have time to catch your breath or let your brain do any dissecting of the fairly ludicrous material.

Though I like a well thought out action flick as much as the next person, there’s something satisfying in just letting a movie like this wash over you without having to worry too much about dots being connected or lessons being learned.  This is a hard muscled thrill ride of a film and it’s thanks to the unusually focused efforts of director Roland Emmerich  (2012, Independence Day, Universal Soldier) and star Channing Tatum (Side Effects, The Vow, Magic Mike, Haywire, 21 Jump Street) that the movie comes off as pleasing as it does.

With a script from James Vanderbilt (The Amazing Spider-Man) that is really just a re-working of the original Die Hard, White House Down takes a good 40 minutes of its 131 minute length to set-up the characters and plot points that will be used throughout the film.  Foreshadowing is a lost art and while most movies have such obvious moments that will be referenced later in the film, there are a few sequences near the end of White House Down that you don’t even realize were set-up in a halfway decent way an hour or more earlier.  I respect films that can divert you like that without going for a cheap ploy and White House Down, while derivative, never feels overtly sly in its approach.

The synopsis above is pretty perfect in setting up the goings-on of the film and I’m going to refrain from saying any more, lest I give away some of the turns the movie takes on its journey.  There’s no super secret twist awaiting audiences but I did find it admirable Vanderbilt and Emmerich didn’t take the trail most traveled in the midst of all the gunfire and explosions.

A movie of this ilk could easily have recessed into R-rated territory and it’s notable that the PG-13 rating leaves the movie relatively bloodless but doesn’t totally cut itself off at the knees either.  People do die but it’s not nearly as excruciating to watch as the deaths in Olympus Has Fallen or even Air Force One, Harrison Ford’s 1997 president in peril film.

Try as I might, I can’t continue to deny that Channing Tatum isn’t coming into his own as a perfectly fine actor and proven action star.  Though the script lightly sketches his war veteran turned security detail muscle man, Tatum convincingly makes the character flesh and bone and not just because he’s put in charge of saving the president (Jamie Foxx, Django Unchained) but his estranged 11 year old daughter (Joey King, Oz the Great and Powerful).

Foxx is someone I can either take or leave but his President James Sawyer is a nice role for the Oscar winning actor.  There’s not a lot of room for Foxx to do anything but what’s asked of him and his Obama-lite take on the president is nothing to roll your eyes at.  This is a president that doesn’t suddenly learn how to use a gun and take on all forms of bad ass-ery…he evolves as the situation changes around him.  There’s some nice chemistry between Foxx and Tatum, something that helps the film along on more than one occasion.

Another actor that I sometimes have mixed feelings about is the lone female star, Maggie Gyllenhaal (The Dark Knight, Won’t Back Down), and she wound up being one of the main reasons I liked the film so much.  As a confident Secret Service agent that isn’t butch-ed up or written as a doormat, Gyllenhaal is commanding and a solid presence in the war room that becomes the nerve center in helping Tatum and Foxx make it out of the attack alive.

Also turning in fine work as a villainous mercenary is Jason Clarke (Zero Dark Thirty, The Great Gatsby, Lawless), Speaker of the House Richard Jenkins (Jack Reacher), and James Woods as the head of Secret Service detail assigned to protect the president.    Everyone else is merely filler comprised of character actors that probably bring their own military uniforms to the set with them.

Even with several well staged action sequences that take Tatum and Foxx on a tour of the White House grounds, the movie does start to feel the weight of its mission about 90 minutes in.  It’s yet another case of people making it out of danger but turning around and going back in to save someone the audience knows they shouldn’t.  The perfunctory ending is rushed…almost as if the last day of shooting arrived and the final ten pages were crammed into one.

For my money, the battle of the Presidential Palace has been won by White House Down thanks to some skilled work by players operating with a hefty budget and A-List talent.  It’s easy to see why the film could be written off quickly by audiences that didn’t care for Olympus Has Fallen but I’d suggest you give this one a go if you’re in the mood for something that goes down relatively easy with a nicely chiseled punch.

The Silver Bullet ~ White House Down

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Synopsis: While on a tour of the White House with his young daughter, a Capitol policeman springs into action to save his child and protect the president from a heavily armed group of paramilitary invaders.

Release Date:  June 28, 2013

Thoughts: Hot on the heels of February’s Olympus Has Fallen is White House Down, another action-thriller involving the hostile take-over of the residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington D.C.  June’s White House Down is directed by Roland Emmerich who started off with the campy and enjoyable Universal Solider/Stargate one-two punch and has gradually gone the Michael Bay route of heading up pictures that were full of sound of fury and signifying nothing.  The presence of in-demand star Channing Tatum (Magic Mike, Side Effects, The Vow) can’t hurt the chances of this taking down the competition at the box office in its first weekend – but let’s see if the film has any substance to go along with the explosions.